Kimberly Alexander holds the Ph.D. in Art and Architectural History from Boston University. A museum professional and scholar, she is adjunct faculty in the History Department at University of New Hampshire. Her book, “Georgian Shoes Stories From Colonial America” will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2016.
The 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians was held in London at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This year’s theme was “fashion.”
For the first time in its distinguished history, the AACH selected ‘fashion’ as its theme, confirming for many scholars the recognition that the field of fashion history, and its attendant subfields, have attained validation. To quote the conference program:
“Fashion in history is a topic which has come of age in recent years, as scholars have turned to addressing what is chic and what is style over the ages and across different cultures. The history of fashion, and the role of fashion in history, is not just confined to the study of dress and costume, but encompasses design and innovation, taste and zeitgeist, treats as its subjects both people and objects, and crosses over into related disciplines such as the history of art and architecture, consumption, retailing and technology.”
Indeed, the overall tone of the two-day conference was celebratory. Established academics, museum professionals, post-doctorate scholars, and graduate students mingled comfortably on stage and off, sharing innovative ideas, approaches, and evidence. The ensemble of plenary speakers– Chris Breward (Edinburgh College of Art), Beverly Lemire (University of Alberta), Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge University) & Maria Hayward (University of Southampton), Valerie Steele (The Museum, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York) and Lucy Worsley (Historic Royal Palaces)—was likewise scintillating.
The conference was expertly crafted (the sole complaint I heard was the lament heard at every major conference—too many excellent, but concurrent sessions made for an embarrassment of riches). The spacious elegance of MacMillian Hall provided areas for impromptu conversations, break-out meetings, and post-panel follow ups.
Provocative opening (held at the IHR) and closing (held at the Victoria and Albert Museum) sessions bookended the meetings, again underscoring the deft planning of the conference organizers. Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayword offered the kick-off talk with their incisive analysis of Matthäus Schwarz’s The First Book of Fashion, their recent co-edited work. Schwarz (1497-1574) was head accountant for a merchant firm in Augsburg, and his remarkable tract collected 137 images of himself in various garments and ensembles, giving us a much clearer idea of a Renaissance man’s sense of genteel fashion. To paraphrase noted speaker and co-author Maria Hayword, “If the style was new, he had it.”
The session underscored one of the main themes that resurfaced throughout the meetings, the idea that fashion is defined in part by its temporal nature, and indeed, Schwarz’s illuminated book reveals a rapidly changing world of fashion in the Sixteenth Century. The trope nicely situated the work of Twenty-first century designer/artists such as the late Alexander McQueen, whose sold-out exhibit “Savage Beauty” was available to attendees at the V&A during the conference.
Other talks examined issues of consumption, emulation, and adaptation, throughout disparate communities, countries, and regions across the globe. A number of papers treated attendees to evidence and case studies in which consumers in New Orleans adapted headscarves from around the globe to local tastes; the availability of bandanas crafted in India and worn in Mexico was explored; the “search” for Chinese velvet and its relationship to the Compass Robe; the significance of what were termed Chinese camlets moving within an ‘early modern fashion system;’ a scandal involving a Spitalfields silk dress in Philadelphia, and a lively look at Lowell mill girls and their own individual styles. We were introduced to innovative conceptualizations of networks of trade and taste, but also to the challenges that confront fashion historians, including the lack of surviving physical examples of textiles and the challenges of interpreting fashion language and deciphering textile terminology from sites around the globe.
Another key theme focused on the role of specific garments or accessories –men’s breeches were especially popular — as a discussion of wider issues. The importance of objects was further highlighted by the conference’s connections to the Victoria and Albert, which co-hosted the event, and which provided a final afternoon of talks and panels by leading curators. In considering fashion in the museum, there was tacit acknowledgement of the need for cooperation between the academy and the museum. Indeed, the very fact that research into fashion history can be expertly expressed in an exhibition environment, much as it can in a scholarly article or publication was apparent. Valerie Steele’s talk, ”Fashion in the Museum” was an insightful and apt conclusion to the event.
That the conference provided an atmosphere for future collaborations between academics, public historians, museum professionals, and teachers was apparent. In concluding the conference, Lawrence Goldman, Director of the IHR, described it as having been a “joyous occasion.”